In a civil war that has battered the world’s conscience with shocking photos and videos, the images from this week’s chemical weapons attack in Syria are among the most brutal. Dozens of people killed, many of them children, other victims gasping for breath, foam around their mouths, all of it conveying unspeakable horror and unimaginable sorrow.
President Donald Trump showed Wednesday he is not immune to such evidence. “I will tell you that attack on children Wednesday had a big impact on me, big impact,” he said. “That was a horrible, horrible thing.”
He strongly expressed his disgust and said his attitude toward Syrian strongman Bashar Assad has changed, a welcome change of heart given his administration’s position a few days ago that removing Assad was not a priority. But such near-universal condemnation didn’t get anyone any closer to knowing how to deal with an awful crisis that has been raging for more than six years.
Rhetoric is not policy, as then-President Barack Obama discovered, and Trump’s message has been mixed. He criticized Obama’s 2012 declaration about chemical weapons being a red line in the sand as a “blank threat,” despite tweeting many times back then that Obama should stay out of Syria. What then did Trump mean when he said this new attack “crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line”?
More troubling was his silence about Russia, one of Assad’s main allies. Hours earlier, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley forcefully criticized the nation, holding up gruesome photos of gassed children and demanding that Russia exercise its influence on Syria. Russia guaranteed the removal of chemical weapons from Syria as part of a 2013 agreement, and was co-guarantor with Iran of Assad’s commitment to a cease-fire earlier this year. Its claim that the poison gas was released when Syrian planes struck a workshop producing chemical weapons for rebels is not credible. All that underscores the folly of Trump’s professed desire for warm relations with Russia. But peace in Syria without Russia, or Iran, is virtually impossible. It’s a high-level game of international diplomacy that Obama never mastered, and Trump has yet to provide convincing evidence he’ll be any better.
The urgency is extreme. More than 250,000 people have been killed. Nearly 11 million are displaced. With the weather warming, refugees again will be on the move, and with that, no doubt, will come more scenes of abject despair, like the photos of dead children washed up on the beach.
Trump is right. He did inherit a mess in Syria. But now it’s his to help solve. As he noted Wednesday, “It is now my responsibility.” That’s a start.
But blame and bluster won’t get it done. — The editorial board